Tag Archives: Childhood

Matters culinary

Not arts politics, not mental health, not the usual remit of this blog, but I’m angry so here goes…

What I hate most about recent Budgets isn’t the crushing inevitability of yet more dehumanising measures being taken against the most vulnerable people in British society. It’s the chattering that follows online. It’s the equally inevitable collective shooting off of mouths, protesting that these measures are necessary and that poor people could solve their problems by just not being poor.

The discussion that happened to annoy me today was about food. I saw someone calling for punitive taxes on junk food, because apparently “poor people” make themselves ill by eating junk food and then can’t work and have to be put on benefits, and then they eat more junk food so they stay ill and never return to being productive members of society. Why don’t they quickly whip up a healthy tuna salad or a vegetable frittata, people ask. It’s cheaper and better for you than a frozen pizza or a pot noodle! These suggestions might be well-intentioned, but they’re also ignorant and got me very annoyed. Diet and attitudes towards food are so much more complex than the people making these suggestions seem to realise, and since I have some experience in this area I thought I’d share.

I wasn’t brought up in poverty, let’s be clear about that. I was born to working class parents who joined the middle class during my teens. But both my parents grew up poor, and the effects of their upbringing can be seen in mine. I grew up on a diet that was partly junk and partly the next step up from junk. I ate a lot of tinned soup, spaghetti hoops, oven chips and the like. It’s all very well to say that my parents should have been feeding me fresh veg, lean meat, brown rice… but how the hell would they have known? Their diets were absolutely atrocious growing up – tinned food stuffed full of artificial colours and preservatives, loads of fried foods, lots of sugary things.

Now you could say that their parents ought to have known better, but I don’t really see how they could. My dad’s family was huge, and I’m pretty sure that when you’re trying to feed a stereotypically Catholic family on a binman’s wages, the priority is to stretch cheap food as far as possible. Feeling full was the important thing. On my mum’s side there was one disinterested parent letting her children eat what they pleased – mostly from tins or boiled in the bag.

You could argue that since both families were poor, my parents shouldn’t have been given sweets as children. But honestly, I think people who grudge the occasional sweet treat to families living in poverty are most likely people who have never been very close to it themselves. You can spend a very small amount of money on sweets and make the treat stretch for days. The picture my parents painted of their upbringing was pretty bleak, and I think you’d have be very hard-hearted to say that they should never have brightened their days with the occasional quarter of soor plooms.

So where, in all of this, were my parents supposed to learn about nutrition? My dad made an excellent vegetable soup, but you can’t live on that alone. My mum might have been taught to cook at school, since girls were still taught Home Economics back then – but since she was mostly kept out of school to look after her siblings, that didn’t happen. She learned enough that she could cook to survival standard, but that was it.

As I was growing up, my parents passed on what skills they had. I learned how to bake using the recipes in the Bero book that you could send off for if you collected enough tokens from packs of self-raising flour. The first proper recipe I learned was spaghetti bolognese, which involved boiling the pasta, browning some meat with onions, then emptying in a jar of Dolmio.

However, what they couldn’t teach me was how cooking actually works. Anyone can empty a ready-made sauce over a pot of pasta, but how do you make the sauce yourself? If you want it to thicken, how do you make that happen? How do you get tomatoes to stop tasting so acidic? When do you add garlic or herbs? What herbs, anyway? Does it make a difference what order you do things in?

I was interested. I wanted to know how to cook, not just how to open jars and tins. When I was 14 I found a copy of an old Good Housekeeping recipe book in a charity shop. I handed over my 50p, took it home and opened it, all set to make all sorts of interesting things… then promptly slammed it shut and shelved it when I saw the lists of ingredients. They were long. They were things I knew we didn’t have in the house and guessed would be expensive to buy. They were often things I hadn’t heard of, and I didn’t know how to do any of the things in the instructions. Julienne? Deglaze? Caramelise? Seriously? These were not in my vocabulary, let alone my repertoire.

This was in the 90s, before I had access to the internet. If I wanted to look up any of these terms, I did it in the library… or I hoped it came up on a TV show. Television was the great advantage I had over my parents, and it’s what taught me to cook. My mum had watched the occasional Delia Smith programme as I grew up, but I found Delia and her pristine kitchen full of little bowls containing precisely-chopped ingredients very intimidating. I couldn’t cook that way, I knew, not without an army of BBC hirelings to do my prep for me. But then Jamie Oliver hit the screens, and that’s where I began to learn. His ingredients came in rough handfuls and approximate measures, with advice about what to do if you put in a little too much of something. His way of cooking looked fun and joyful. I thought I could probably do some of that.

So, with a certain amount of trepidation, I dug out that Good Housekeeping book and looked up the recipe for Hungarian Goulash. I had never tried it but had always been fascinated by the name. Mum had worked with a lady from Hungary for a while when I was a kid, and she had left me with a romanticised notion that anything Hungarian was automatically crammed with mystery and coolness. Carefully, I trawled through the recipe and worked out which ingredients seemed to be essential. I persuaded Mum to include them next time we went grocery shopping. Then I experimented.

The results were good. My first goulash was very tasty. It was the first time I’d ever eaten paprika. We ate it with crusty bread because I had no idea what veg it could be paired with. My only experience of vegetables was having them boiled to death, so as far as I knew I wasn’t keen on them. Anything that wasn’t boiled was probably iceberg lettuce, grated carrot or an anaemic slice of watery tomato. Vegetables, I was convinced, only belonged in soup.

Eventually I would learn how to cook veg. These days I’m actually fairly good at it. In fact, these days I’m a pretty decent cook with a reasonable repertoire of dishes, and when I want to expand that repertoire I know how to do it. I read a selection of recipes for the dish I want, identify the key ingredients, then I experiment from there. The result is that I can cook healthy, nutritious food, and I can do it with cheap ingredients. I’ve got this cooking malarkey cracked.

But do you know why I didn’t experiment more in my teens, when I was first learning to cook? Because it was expensive. Our local Safeway was small and didn’t offer much of a range of ingredients. It wasn’t the greatest for freshness, either. So first of all there was the expense of getting to the nearest big supermarkets. Then there was the cost of buying the actual ingredients. The way to keep prices down is to buy in bulk, but if you’re cooking a particular ingredient for the first time and you have no idea what you would do with the leftovers, you try to buy just as much as you need. Once you’ve mastered the basics of cooking and acquired some versatility, then you start getting bold about having leftover ingredients. When you’re a beginner, not so much.

Then there was the hidden cost of actually cooking the food. You’ve got to have the right equipment. I don’t mean anything fancy, but minor things like greaseproof paper, measuring spoons, a decent vegetable knife. Things that most of us take for granted – but if you don’t cook, why would you have them? My family cooked enough to own these things, but when I took more of an interest in cooking we suddenly started getting through things like greaseproof paper much quicker. Also things like salt, cornflour and tinfoil. Minor expenses individually, but they add up.

Finally, there was the cost of failure. Most of my experiments worked, and even if they didn’t quite go to plan they would turn out edible. But every so often things would go badly wrong and the results would have to be thrown away. In those cases, dinner would be tinned soup or, if my parents felt extravagant, a takeaway. Either way, the cost of an extra meal would be incurred. Even though I wasn’t the one paying the financial cost, every failed experiment was a blow to my confidence and I’d play it safe for a while after that. My family’s fortunes may have been on the rise, but we weren’t wealthy enough to be wasteful.

The development of my cooking skills went on hold for a while after my parents died. Living alone makes cooking a hell of a lot less economical, because it’s annoyingly difficult and comparatively expensive to buy sufficient ingredients for just one person. It’s fine if you’re batch-cooking, but slowly working your way through your freezer can be soul-destroyingly monotonous, and it’s a constant reminder of the people you would have shared the meal with had they still been alive. Tinned soup, toasties and takeaways often seem like a much better option. When I lived in London I simply didn’t have time to cook.

My experiments resumed when I returned to Edinburgh. I was living with other people, which meant I had people to feed. I had mastered the basics and felt more confident. And, importantly, I had the internet on my side. By this time YouTube tutorials and allrecipes.com existed. If I wanted to learn what deglazing was, all I needed to do was type the word in and watch someone showing me and telling me why it was necessary. If I was curious about whether a particular step was necessary, I could usually scroll down to the comments and find someone who had skipped it talking about what happened. It was magic. It’s also a lot easier to find specialist ingredients, living in a slightly hipsterish area in the city centre.

However, just because I can now cook easy, cheap meals, that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the lessons of my youth. I don’t take this for granted, and I know that there’s actually a fair amount of money invested in my “kitchen basics”. Individually each jar of spices, bottle of lemon juice, roll of foil or what have you didn’t cost much – but considered collectively, it’s over £35 worth of stuff. It’s enough that if I had to buy it all again, all in one go, the sum would give me pause. And yes, it’s all stuff that I use regularly – perhaps not daily, but often enough to justify the space it takes up in my kitchen.

I’m also fortunate enough that I don’t have to worry about how I cook my food. If I know I’m going to be busy all day and will be too tired to cook dinner, I can throw something in the slow cooker. If I were on a pre-paid electricity meter, that might well be a luxury I couldn’t afford. I roasted a big tray of vegetables a few days ago. 45 minutes in a very hot gas oven. Cheap, healthy ingredients, and they tasted delicious, but what if I couldn’t afford to use up that much gas? A couple of minutes in the microwave would save a lot of energy and do the job of cooking the veg, but the result would be very bland and boring. Imagine eating that every day. Just the things you can cook in the microwave, day in, day out. Is it really surprising that you might reach for the flavourful, MSG-laden alternative of a ready meal, just for the sake of a bit of variety? Is it so much to ask that people should be able to eat things that taste good as well as keeping them alive?

I know there are various “challenges” out there that ask people to try living on a fixed sum of money for a short while. Gwyneth Paltrow famously tried and failed to manage on the sum given to Americans on food stamps for a week. Some of these schemes, like Live Below The Line, do a lot to raise money for charity. But while they can raise awareness of the issue, they can’t teach their participants what it’s like to live without proper dietary education. It’s not just about the amount of money you have available to purchase ingredients, or even to pay for the energy used in cooking. If you’ve been taught to cook and educated about nutrition, you can’t unlearn that. You can’t forget what paprika tastes like and go back to viewing it with suspicion, not sure whether you should spend £1 on a jar of it because you might hate it, or it might be something you’ve got to use in conjunction with another thing that you don’t have and can’t afford. Once you know about balancing carbohydrates and proteins and starch, you can’t just erase it from your brain and find yourself wondering why, having eaten a salad, you don’t feel full.

Honestly, I know how ridiculous some of this will sound to people who learned about these things before they were old enough to realise they were learning. It might feel like this is innate knowledge. But cooking and nutrition are learned skills, just like reading and writing. They ought to be taught in schools, because being able to feed yourself well is essential preparation for adult life and it’s not a safe assumption that every child learns these things in the home. There’s no sense in damning people for lacking the skills that no-one taught them, especially when their means of self-teaching are restricted by cost and access to resources. Instead, try to imagine the challenges that could have faced you… and think yourself lucky if they didn’t.

Things I do for the sheer giddy hell of it

If you ask me what I like doing in my (ha) copious free time, most of my answers will be completely unsurprising. It’s mostly arty stuff, overlapping with my professional life – writing, music, reading, watching films, watching plays. I’m also fond of cooking and baking, and I like trivia quizzes.

There’s something that all of these things have in common. Specifically, I’m good at them. (Well, strictly speaking I’m not good at music, I am a terrible musician, but I’m a good singer so I can fool people into thinking I’m good at music.) I can interpret books, plays and films and discuss them endlessly. I am a repository of information that is never useful anywhere other than a quiz or when writing a play or a novel. My lemon drizzle cake is fantastic, and I make a killer Cullen Skink.

Without wishing to sound arrogant, I’ve always been pretty good at these things. Training and practise have helped, of course, but I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t do all of these things at an above average level.

Like many “gifted” people, my gifts came at the cost of my work ethic in my early years. Being naturally quite good at a lot of things, I was able to coast. I was clever enough to find workarounds for things that challenged me, but not quite clever enough to foresee the problems I was storing up for myself. Music is a good example here. I took singing lessons and, briefly, piano lessons when I was 14. For some reason reading sheet music was difficult for me, so rather than practise until it became easy I relied on having a good ear, decent pitch and muscle memory to see me through. It works for a little while, but I assume that if I’d been able to continue with piano for longer I’d have learned that there’s a stage at which you can’t just fake being good any more, you need to actually be good. I certainly reached that stage with things like languages. I got to university and suddenly the As weren’t quite as effortless as they used to be, so I found myself battling to acquire a work ethic at 17.

With all of that in mind, it always surprises me that one of my favourite hobbies is playing computer games. Let it be known that I am really, really bad at computer games. I can hold my own in some fighting games where furious button-mashing will carry the day. I’m decent at Tetris. But that’s about it. Where most games are concerned, including many of my favourites, I suck badly.

The first game I remember playing was Dig Dug. An uncle of mine had a home computer back in the days when those were rare, and he let me play it a couple of times. I loved it. I was bad at it.

Next came my cousins’ Sinclair Spectrum. They had Cauldron. I was probably about five and obsessed with anything witch-related, so I fell madly in love with the game. I don’t think I ever got past the first couple of screens, but that didn’t matter. There was this world in the computer and I could interact with it and I WAS GOD. This is probably the basis for much of my enjoyment of these games.

Eventually my dad set up a home office and I was sometimes allowed to play Solitaire on it, which wasn’t quite the same thrill as Cauldron. I continued to covet my cousins’ Spectrum, then their Nintendo, but eventually Dad let me expand my PC game repertoire with a pirated copy of King’s Quest 3. It’s a good thing I was dreadful at it and didn’t have a copy of the manual that had all the copyright protection spells in it – the pirated version was missing half the game, and I’d have been gutted if I’d successfully felinified the evil wizard only to be told I had to Insert Disk 2. Still, my crapness didn’t hold me back. I loved this unclearly-drawn world of magic and maps and I spent many happy hours trying in vain to climb down that bloody mountain path and typing in commands the game didn’t understand.

Then, at about the same time, my cousins got a Sega Megadrive and I got Sid Meier’s Pirates!, which still holds a place in my heart as one of my favourite games ever. At the same time as conquering the Caribbean (or failing spectacularly to), I was learning the delights of Sonic, Street Fighter II and Streets of Rage. Since my access to these games was severely limited, restricted not only by the infrequency of our visits but by the necessity of sharing with my cousins, I’m not surprised that I never became much good at them. But I loved them all the same.

I pestered my parents briefly to let me save my pocket money for a console of my own, but my dad brought that dream to an abrupt end by explaining that such a feat would take me years, and even then I wouldn’t be able to afford the games. I made do with being allowed to play games on his PC at weekends. I started to get better at Pirates and the Sierra games, along with a handful of oddities that entered my life because I found them in the sale bin at Makro or because I’d got my hands on a dodgy copy. Without wishing to enter the current contentious debate about “girl gamers”, I found that liking computer games put me squarely in the company of the boys at school. I don’t know whether I was the only girl in my class (both at primary and secondary, now that I think about it) who played computer games, but I was certainly the only one who was open about it and part of the little circle of kids swapping disks and photocopied manual pages under the desk. By those means, games like Monkey Island, Theme Park and Dune entered my life. I fell head over heels for the wit and lateral thinking of Monkey Island (well, wit, lateral thinking and GHOST PIRATES), and while I found that the resource management of the other two games challenged my attention span, I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when something I’d worked hard at went right.

Unfortunately, once I started secondary school I lost my little coterie of fellow gamers. If there were people who liked computer games at my tiny secondary school, I didn’t find them. I continued to play alone, but my supply of new games dried up. Then I began to concentrate on theatre and spent less time on games, and they remained an occasional pleasure for some years. I watched with envy as the World of Warcraft craze began, but I never got involved because I’m too much my father’s daughter to play anything I have to pay a subscription for. One-off purchases and single-player are more my jam. As an adult I contented myself with stocking up on legal copies of all those games I had once pirated and completed some that had stumped me as a child, sometimes due to my own ineptitude and sometimes due to my inability to afford hint lines/hint books (on which note, fuck you Sierra for putting the unicorn bridle in King’s Quest IV behind another object on a screen that was only accessible once in the game and generally only found by people with hint books).

Eventually it occurred to me that as an adult, I could now buy a games console if I wanted. I still couldn’t quite bring myself to pay the price for a new one, but I bought a second-hand Wii from a friend. He left Street Figher II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on it. A few years later when my now-husband moved in, we fetched his old consoles from his parents’ place and began to play through old favourites. I started searching the internet for old PC games that I hadn’t been able to find copies of, which led me to GOG, and from thence to Steam and Humblebundle… Indie game El Dorado.

Just as I loved the old, simple games that introduced me to the joys of pixels on a screen, so I love the gorgeous games that are being released now. There’s so much beautiful artwork, so many brilliant scores, such clever gameplay… Some truly excellent games, some that do really interesting things that aren’t quite successful but are still really cool… and some that I don’t enjoy but am still interested to check out, especially considering that games don’t cost a fraction of what they used to when physical distribution was the only option.

It makes me really happy to have grown up with games and seen the progression from Dig Dug and Space Invaders to things like The Bridge, Braid, Crusader Kings II, Pid, and the game that has been my favourite thing for the past year, Don’t Starve.  I’m not bad at the stunningly-illustrated puzzles in The Bridge, though I do get seasick from the spinning screen. I don’t quite have the patience for Braid but I love to watch my  husband play it. I truly suck at Crusader Kings II, but once I stopped trying to be a good ruler and embraced my capacity for tyranny it became lots of fun. Don’t Starve is probably the game I’m best at, though I’m still pretty terrible and I cheat like hell by using mods to alleviate some of the game’s less forgiving aspects. I will never be one of these people with a massive fancy base, breezing through Adventure Mode just for kicks, but I will be the one having a high old time fighting death-or-glory battles with beasties several times my size. Sometimes I don’t have to be particularly good at things. I don’t say this often, but… from time to time, just having fun is enough.

Occasionally I encounter people who really seem to have a problem with adults playing computer games. I’ve been told that I should have grown out of it by now, and that it’s sad/shocking/both to see “a grown woman” wasting her time this way. Unsurprisingly, this is not criticism I choose to entertain. Firstly it’s my spare time and I’ll do as I damn well please with it. Second, I don’t consider it wasted time (and I suspect that if the people who say these things knew more about the massive, diverse range of games out there, they wouldn’t either). I enjoy every minute of it, even if I’m not good at them. That was true when I was eight and when I was sixteen. It’s true at thirty-two. I fully expect it to be true at sixty-four, and be damned to what anyone else thinks.

And when I’m 64, I expect that I’ll still be asking my husband to defeat the Helmasaur King for me. I never could kite that guy, and sometimes a girl has to know when to ask for help.